Battle of the Negev: How Israel disguises settler colonialism as a legal dispute

Mounted Israeli security forces ride on a hill during a protest by Beduins in the southern Israeli village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Neguev Desert, against an afforestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 13, 2022. - Bedouin, who are part of Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, have long opposed tree-planting initiatives in the Negev, blasting them as a de facto government land grab in areas they call home. (Photo by Menahem KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)
8 min read
20 January, 2022
Analysis: Israel is attempting to frame efforts to evict Palestinian Bedouins from their land as a 'legal dispute', but displacing Palestinians has always been at the crux of its concerted and ongoing settler-colonial project.

The Naqab (Negev) is once again the scene of clashes between the Palestinian Bedouin community and the Israeli state.

It began as a strike by the community to protest potential Israeli 'forestation projects' on their land and subsequent evictions of their population.

But the situation soon escalated to a physical confrontation when the Jewish National Fund (JNF) sent earth-moving machinery into the villages of Naqa Ber Al-Saba and Al-Atrash to carry out the project.  

Most Israeli media, especially on the right, framed the protests as riots, legal disputes with the state, or focused on the police injuries and security ramifications of the clashes. For Palestinian media, land usurpation and the Judaisation of the Negev were the dominant narratives.

This polarity has been reflected more deeply inside Israel’s fragile coalition, which, according to Haaretz, nearly drove the government to collapse.  

"There is very little doubt among Palestinians that the JNF's forestation in the Negev is simply temporary planting aimed, above all, at making the land off-limits for its Bedouin inhabitants"

Mansour Abbas, leader of Ra’am, the first Palestinian party in an Israeli coalition, was at the centre of the political uproar over the JNF tree planting scheme. He issued an ultimatum to the coalition and his party decided to boycott the Knesset plenum.  

Abbas, who stood firmly on the issue, originally anchored his party’s decision to join the coalition in the need to improve the lives of Palestinians in Israel. Among his promises was the recognition of roughly 40 unrecognised villages in the Negev which Israel refers to as the “illegal cluster.”  

These villages are home to nearly half of the Negev Bedouin population and suffer from an almost complete lack of basic services. The other half live in seven purpose-built towns and seven villages in the process of gaining state recognition; they have jurisdiction over only 0.8% of land in Israel’s so-called Southern District.   

After coming under fire for saying Israel “was born a Jewish state”, Abbas now seems in better alignment with his fellow Palestinian Knesset members over the Negev. This is perhaps the clearest show of unity among Israel’s Palestinian parties since the latest elections last March.

Shortly after the eruption of the protests, Abbas, whose political success was owed to Bedouin voters, visited the area with other party lawmakers. So did the Joint List’s leader Ayman Odeh.   

Israeli security forces arrest a young demonstrator during a protest in the village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev Desert on January 13, 2022. [Getty]
Israeli security forces arrest a young demonstrator during a protest in the village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev Desert on 13 January 2022. [Getty]

Because Ra’am’s presence in the eight-party coalition is essential for the Bennett government’s survival, some Israeli officials took the decision to back down on their previous support of the Negev tree planting project.  

These positions came amid news of expected negotiations between the government and Bedouin representatives, as well as government plans to recognise 10-12 additional “illegal villages” in the Negev. 

Yet, Knesset members from Yamina and Yesh Atid pledged to clamp down on so-called Bedouin lawlessness, vowing to press ahead with the tree planting project. Seemingly on board is right-wing Prime Minister Bennett who promised during his electoral campaign to end lawlessness in the Negev and return to “governability.”  

For those running the JNF, the Negev encroachment is not a government-commissioned contract and the tree planting is simply part of a continuing mission to fulfil the Zionist dream of “making the desert bloom,” a core founding myth of Israel's political ideology.

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“We have been planting trees in the Negev for 15 years in the same format as right now…” and “will continue planting in the entire Negev…as part of the Zionist vision,” NJF chairman Avraham Duvdevani said last week.

Even though JNF is supposedly not involved in the government’s policy-making, it is nevertheless central to the state’s land ownership practices and acts as a quasi-governmental organisation, arguably embodying and implementing the state’s long-term visions.   

There is very little doubt among Palestinians that JNF’s forestation in the Negev is simply temporary planting aimed, above all, at making the land off-limits for its Bedouin inhabitants.

After all, Israel’s Society for Protection of Nature took JNF to court over concerns that the latter’s activities in the Negev have had destructive repercussions on the desert ecosystem. The court ruled in JNF’s favour.   

Whichever the case, Palestinians in Israel and elsewhere see the Negev issue as only one part of Israel’s larger and ongoing policy to appropriate their land. It provokes their existential fear of eventually losing their community and identity, a prospect that makes the question of legality or lack thereof irrelevant.  

"Palestinians in Israel and elsewhere see the Negev issue as only one part of Israel's larger and ongoing policy to appropriate their land"

Selective illegality  

Since the establishment of Israel and the state’s process of evictions, the Bedouin population in the Negev dropped from 65-100,000 before the Nakba to only 11,000 soon after. Those who remained came under Israeli military rule, much like other Palestinians who remained in their homes in the north and east of historical Palestine.  

The Bedouins were forcibly concentrated in a military administered area named “Al-Siyaj'' (“the fence”). With the introduction of the 1965 Planning and Construction Law, most of Al-Siyaj’s land was designed as agricultural zones, thus banning the construction of homes and retrospectively labelling existing ones as “illegal.”

Overnight, a sizable portion of the Bedouin population was transformed into “trespassers” on their own land.  

For decades, the Israeli state has framed its conflict with the Bedouins in the Negev as a “legal dispute” over land. In state legislation the lands of the Negev are state lands; ergo, the claim that the state is appropriating Bedouin land is untrue.  

Israeli mounted police stand guard as excavators work as part of the forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in the Negev desert on 12 January 2022. [Getty]

Another line of defence to this legal rationale is that land disputes between nomadic groups and the authorities are not exclusive to Israel, but a regional phenomenon.

Neither the British Mandate nor the Ottomans recognised Bedouin land ownership claims in the Negev. Israel adopted the already existing British and Ottoman land laws regarding the nomadic communities in the south.  

Conveniently omitted from this legal outlook is the status of so-called frontier Jewish settlements in the region, which began in the late 19th century. These settlements did not have any valid legal status under Ottoman law and were not officially acknowledged by the British Mandate authorities either. 

The Bedouins already lived in multiple tribe-led lands for generations across the region. By contrast, the core function of the Jewish settlements, which were erected several generations later in this semi-arid desert, was the delineation of the borders of the Jewish community in Palestine.

Yet, today, as the Bedouins’ land ownership is constantly challenged, Jewish settlements are encouraged to expand.  

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A more timely argument by the Israeli authorities hinges on claims that the Bedouins represent an obstacle to development in the area. This provides the state with the necessary legal power to forcibly transfer them.  

In January 2019, the authorities announced a plan to forcibly transfer 36,000 Bedouins living in “unrecognised villages" in order to carry out “economic development” projects and expand military training sites in the area.   

According to Adalah, the plan is yet another confirmation of Israel’s discriminatory policies against the Bedouins in the Negev. The plan, which will be carried out over the course of several years, will eventually see the removal of thousands of Bedouins to government-allocated, poverty-stricken townships in other areas in the Negev.  

Despite operating behind a veneer that these projects are for “the common good of the Bedouin population,” a UN report argues that these townships lack sufficient infrastructure, including adequate sewage systems, health and education facilities, and public services.  

"On one side, the Bedouin community is barricaded in their historic land and resisting dispossession. On the other, there is the Israeli state with its legal and military might

The evictions are expected to restore some 260,000 dunams (roughly 640,000 acres) to the state, which Adalah - much like other rights groups - estimates will be used to facilitate Jewish population growth and development, while concentrating the Bedouins in congested urban centres.  

The 2005 “Strategic Plan for Negev Development”, for instance, makes it clear that the state aims to increase the Jewish population in the area from (then) 535,000 to 900,000 in 2015. Whether the target was met remains unclear.  

Thus far, the Israeli government has introduced two inter-ministerial five-year plans (2011 and 2017 respectively) for economic, educational, and social developments in the Negev. The positive spin of these plans, according to the Regional Council for the Unrecognised villages, does not match the reality.  

Almost all the “unrecognised villages” are excluded. Moreover, the 2017 plan includes a "statutory enforcement" clause added upon the request of a number of government ministers who refused to sign the plan unless additional measures were included to ensure the transfer of Bedouins from unrecognised villages to state-planned ones.  

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As the recent clashes suggest, Israel’s multiple plans targeting the Negev’s Bedouins only serve to deepen the conflict. On one side, the Bedouin community is barricaded in their historic land and resisting dispossession. On the other, there is the Israeli state with its legal and military might, as well as settler-colonial vision.  

Between the two stand the Palestinian Knesset members attempting to be true to their constituents, while being limited by statutory duties to the state that came into existence through their people’s dispossession. 

A satisfactory outcome for the Bedouin community may not be attainable at the moment. And that is certainly not good news for Israel’s broader Palestinian population, who as they fight an existential battle in the south have their eyes locked on deteriorating socio-economic conditions, rising crime rates, and similar but more subtle dispossessions in the north.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa